Airline passenger group FlyersRights.org has released 20 detailed passenger complaints of in-flight sexual assaults made to the US Department of Transportation (DOT), obtained pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests, and posted them on its website.
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org and a former counsel to the NYS Crime Victims Board, noted, “These complaints show in graphic detail what is happening with increasing frequency- Mainly on long haul flights with lots of alcohol and usually to women traveling alone. It is but a small sample of the hundreds to thousands of sexual abuse incidents that are vastly underreported and rarely prosecuted.
“In-flight sexual abuse is punishable by up to 10 years in prison plus fines and mandatory restitution under Chapter 109A of the Federal Criminal Code. The US Department of Justice and FBI have jurisdiction. But due to no mandatory reporting or recordkeeping by airlines, there is no way for the victim to directly and timely report the crimes to law enforcement, coupled with a four to five step reporting procedures of the airlines frustrating most investigations, nothing is usually done.”
According to FlyersRights.org, complaints to the FBI increased from 38 in 2014 to 63 in 2017, while the DOT collected 20 complaints from 2012 through 2017. The group explains that to have law enforcement meet the victim, perpetrator, and witnesses at the plane upon arrival, a complaint must go through four to five steps, involving a flight attendant, the captain, the airline ground crew, and the airline station manager. When law enforcement has showed up, the Offices of the United States Attorneys often do not prosecute the case, they claim with the FBI having no method to monitor how many cases were prosecuted by local and state prosecutors.
The passenger group says that sexual assault is more likely to occur on cramped, long-haul, and red-eye flights with darkened cabins where there are fewer passengers who are awake and have a line of sight as witnesses to a sexual assault. The group highlighted the fact that many of the complaints to the DOT involved intoxicated passengers who were served alcohol on the plane. “Notoriously,” the group says, “the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 exempts airlines from state Dram Shop laws, which place strict liability for the actions of intoxicated patrons on the businesses that serve them alcoholic beverages.”
In the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 enacted on 5 October, Congress created a National In-Flight Sexual Assault Task Force to be appointed by DOT Secretary Elaine Chao. The task force members are expected to be announced on 16 January, 2019.